Amy Engel- The Familiar Dark #BlogTour

Eve Taggert’s life has been spent steadily climbing away from her roots. Her mother, a hard and cruel woman who dragged her up in a rundown trailer park, was not who she wanted to be to her own daughter, Junie. But 12-year old Junie is now dead. Found next to the body of her best friend in the park of their small, broken town. Eve has nothing left but who she used to be. Despite the corrupt police force that patrol her dirt-poor town deep in the Missouri Ozarks, Eve is going to find what happened to her daughter. Even if it means using her own mother’s cruel brand of strength to unearth secrets that don’t want to be discovered and face truths it might be better not to know…

I must admit I am rather partial to a journey into the redneck heartlands of America, so it was pretty much a dead cert that The Familiar Dark would be tailor made for this reader. Also every so often a book comes along with such an understated, but breathtakingly powerful, writing style that knocks your socks off, and yes folks, you guessed it, this box is firmly ticked too. Focussing on the character of Eve Taggert, a weary and careworn but devoted mother whose world is shattered by the seemingly unexplainable murder of her young daughter, Engel weaves a tale of simmering violence and deceit that absolutely grabs you by the throat, and at times heart and refuses to ease its grip. As the story unfolds I couldn’t help but think of the quote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive” as Eve edges ever closer to the truth of this senseless crime, and shocking secrets come to the surface.

I absolutely adored the character of Eve, scarred by the physical and mental claustrophobia of a childhood with an abusive mother, and by a series of similarly abusive interactions with men, “here it was still the same old merry-go-round of drugs and poverty and women being chewed up and spit out by men,” in the small town of Barren Springs.  She exhibits a fortitude and strength that belies her previous state of victimhood, and like her hometown itself, whose residents have a “sheer, stubborn wilfulness that kept people breathing when it might have been easier to give up,” so she embarks on an increasingly dangerous, and emotionally testing path to uncover the truth behind her daughter’s murder. What I found incredibly affecting in the book was the way that Engels dissects the very nature of womanhood, and a woman’s part in this incredibly controlling patriarchal community. In one passage the author refers to the fact that women were expected to show weakness and conformity, but anger and any form of challenge to the accepted norms was not acceptable. Hence, as Eve, fuelled by anger and a sense of injustice, begins to routinely challenge the notions of how she should be behaving, and the posturing masculinity she encounters, and as a consequence our respect for, and empathy with her is heightened. Although she cannot evade the pernicious grip entirely of some of the male figures in her life, inch by inch she begins to garner the strength to chew them up and spit them out herself…

I found her relationship with her previously estranged mother, a real lynchpin of the book, as Eve had so effectively distanced herself from this less than stellar influence in her formative years. Where Eve has on the surface of it effectively turned her back on, and grown away from her poor and abusive roots, her mother has stayed rooted in a destructive and criminal life. What becomes increasingly interesting in the book is the enforced return of Eve to her mother’s influence, and what this means in terms of her relationship with her. There’s some surprises in store from our initial perception of this relationship, and none more so than closing chapters of the book. Eve’s relationships with others (aside from her work colleagues) are guarded and defensive, but like her increasing interactions with her mother, Eve, and the reader, make some interesting discoveries along the way. It’s so hard to review this without spoilers…

Engel has a laconic, lean and incredibly rhythmical cadence to her writing style, where the brevity of her prose works to increase every word and image used. Little wonder that I read this in pretty much one sitting, and really appreciated the book as not only a fully formed and compelling murder mystery, but also as the exposure of one woman’s harsh and emotionally isolated existence, outside of the fullness of love for her daughter. As we learn more about Eve, both good and bad, we care increasingly more about her, and her search for justice, however this is to be meted out.

Amy Engel is a new-to-me author, and if The Familiar Dark is anything to go by, one whose previous books are going to be investigated. From its heart-in-the-mouth and visceral opening, to its superb characterisation and beautiful writing style, this book is one that will stay with me for a long time, and I will most certainly read again. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Hodder Books for the ARC)

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